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REVIEW: DSSO rises to challenge of demanding tribute

Music with flair reigned supreme at the DECC Saturday night as the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to the tenure of conductor Taavo Virkhaus --1977-1994. "All I Need Is Me" was the theme of the evening. We had what we needed: an a...

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Music with flair reigned supreme at the DECC Saturday night as the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to the tenure of conductor Taavo Virkhaus --1977-1994. "All I Need Is Me" was the theme of the evening. We had what we needed: an articulate conductor, Markand Thakar, and musicians Nicole Swanson and Erin Aldridge. The result was music that brilliantly washed over all the varied egos in the house.

Thakar led a reduced orchestra in the Symphony No. 34 in C Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This was a cute symphony; all three movements were effervescent, bristling with delicate rhythms throughout. Thakar has wonderfully improved his approach to the intimacy of 18th century music. The melodic lines were rich and flowing. The second movement strings created a nonstop lyrical duet, only to be boisterously teased by the driving energy of the last movement.

Since viola section member Nicole Swanson was crowned Miss Minnesota recently, a program addition featured her performance of the Romance for Viola and Orchestra by Max Bruch. Her silvery evening gown was matched by her consummate poise, as she filled the house with the sonorous, rainbow-shaped melodies of this luscious, well-loved piece. This considerable emotional warmth met with very generous applause.

In October 1989, Virkhaus programmed "Ein Heldenleben," a programmatic symphony by Richard Strauss illuminating the personal joys and stresses of a clearly defined "Hero." To most of those who knew Strauss, this was an autobiographical work. His successes, his struggles with critics, were all wrapped up in every single measure of this super-charged tour de force, rarely performed in live concerts.

Thakar programmed this work knowing that the DSSO was ready for the challenge. His interpretation of each of the six sections was compelling, pushing the energy of the brass, percussion, winds, and strings to ever higher climaxes.

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We met The Hero, full of brass and pomp. Then we met the Hero's adversaries, who attacked with clarinets, flutes, oboes and bassoons in a prickly, combatant manner: short bursts of sound and phrase, aiming to distract from the apparent poise of the Hero. Next we met the Hero's companion. At this point, violinist and concertmaster Aldridge claimed center stage. Her emotional and passionate embracing of the solo violin part caught up the audience in a new understanding of the power of Strauss.

Gradually, off-stage trumpets and crisp flute chirps interrupted the passion. The impulsive combination of five drums brought the battlefield into view with full explosion of all the resources on stage. A chorale coming from the enlarged brass section signaled a return to the peaceful intentions of the Hero. The symphony wound down as the Hero retired from reality, but kept a sense of fulfillment. Aldridge brought her passion back for a reminiscence, then the brass choir brings a resonant close to this hero's story.

The audience went wild. Each section of the orchestra was recognized for its brilliance. When Aldridge was recognized, the house erupted in warm shouts of enthusiasm. The DSSO was, indeed, ready for this demanding performance, with well-showered praise due to the highly articulate and vibrant direction coming from Thakar.

Samuel Black is a Duluth musician who regularly reviews classical programs for the News Tribune.

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